YOUR HEALTH: Literally rethinking the way you recover from ACL tears

ATHENS, Ohio – The human brain has the remarkable ability to rewire itself.

Now, researchers are studying whether retraining the brain will help athletes and military servicemen and women protect damaged joints.

21-year old Amir Miller was a freshman at Ohio University the first time he got injured playing football.

The defensive end cut to make a tackle and felt his knee pop.

"I knew in my heart I tore it," he said.

"I didn't want to believe it but I kind of knew that I tore it."

After surgery to repair his torn ACL and months of physical therapy, Amir returned to the team, only to re-tear the joint this fall.

But is there a way to improve rehab, and cut the risk of re-injury?

"What happens after this injury is your brain starts to use vision for motion because its very accurate and very sensitive, and it's able to help guide your movement," explained Dustin Grooms, Ohio University Athletic Training assistant professor.

During rehab, athletes use special strobe glasses to suppress vision, forcing them to rely on proprioception, the brain's ability to sense the knees without seeing them.

Neuroplasticity, as it is called, allows the synapses in the brain to get stronger when they are faced with new behaviors or environmental factors.

"And get that cognitive load or that thinking load during therapy, that way when their joints are ready to go back, their brains are as well," said Grooms.

Groom's lab has also developed training scenarios for military servicemen and women with ACL tears.

"We do everything right in therapy, but when they go back to high stress tactical situations their ability to control their knee is not as good as they would want it to be."

CLINICAL TRIALS:   Mayo Clinic is conducting a clinical study testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this disease.   The overall goal of the Neuromuscular Intervention Targeted to Mechanisms of ACL Load in Athletes is to reduce risk of second anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury in active athletes between 14 to 24 years old.   As about a third of athletes, who have a primary ACL injury and return to sport, experience a secondary injury; which could potentially end athletic careers and affect the quality of life for affected athletes.

The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded Grooms' lab a $750,000 grant to continue to study virtual reality ACL rehabilitation.

Beginning in September, researchers will test 30 military patients who have had ACL reconstruction and follow their progress over three years using virtual reality and other methods of physical therapy.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at

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